Maximizing Virtual Learning for Students with Dyslexia through Appropriate Use of Accommodations
Recognizing that October is Dyslexia Awareness Month, this edition of the Reading Expert focuses on accommodations for students with dyslexia. We were privileged to participate in a webinar that featured several Portland-area high school students and one of their parents who shared their experiences with online instruction and how that has impacted their learning. This webinar was sponsored by the International Dyslexia Association Oregon Branch. We had the opportunity to speak to some of these students following the webinar to ask additional questions. We’ll start by describing students’ experiences with online learning and then provide examples of accommodations.
In the webinar students shared their experiences with learning in the virtual setting and what accommodations worked best for them. Students expressed a common theme: communication with teachers has been much more difficult, and as a result, students missed being able to speak with teachers face-to-face. Although email is a viable form of communication, for students having difficulties with reading and writing, email can be challenging. Drafting communications can take longer even for just minor queries. In addition, email communication may not provide students with the immediate clarification they need. Instead, students have to wait for responses to their queries longer than during face-to-face instruction.
Students found it was much easier to advocate for their needs when they attended school in person. During the follow-up interviews, we asked if teachers were available for video chat. The response was mixed. One student said that his school required teachers to have office hours and that this was very helpful. Other students, however, indicated that they did not always have ready access to teachers for support. Some teachers were less comfortable with technology, and others experienced challenges with their time that hindered video-chat options.
Students noted that the online setting impacts how teachers teach and explain directions. Students we interviewed were vocal in their observation that with in-person teaching, teachers took more time to explain activity directions and clarify content. With online teaching, students noted that teachers seem to feel rushed to present the lesson material. This rush to present material affects students with dyslexia because they need additional time to take notes and process the material being presented. Students expressed the need for teachers to slow down and take the time to hear their questions.
When asked what could be done to best support their learning online, students shared the following suggestions:
- Provide opportunities to email or video-chat with teachers to get clarification.
- Allow use of speech to text on Google Docs.
- Allow use of speech to text by using Siri on iPhone.
- Allow use of audiobooks.
- Provide hard copy of notes and slides prior to the lesson.
- Provide organizational support.
- Offer extra time for assignments and tests.
- Allow use of Easy Spelling Aid for checking spelling before typing in the chat box.
- Send the links that will be posted in the chat box in advance, as navigating the chat box is overwhelming for some.
The following is a paraphrased quote from a parent whom we interviewed:
Some of the best experiences my daughters have had in distance learning classes were the ones where there were such effective universal accommodations in place to ensure that the class was accessible to everyone—that there were very few additional things that needed to be requested due to dyslexia. The teachers provided these features to the entire class: a clear syllabus/schedule, consistent communication/layout, class notes, graphic organizers, presentation of content in multiple ways, allowing a second attempt on a quiz or assignment, and making audio recordings of texts available.
The following link provides information about how to create a more accessible online course: 20 Tips for Teaching an Accessible Online Course.
Principles of Effective Accommodations
In its Accommodations for Students with Dyslexia Fact Sheet (2020), the International Dyslexia Association defines accommodations as “adjustments made to allow a student to demonstrate knowledge, skills, and abilities without lowering learning or performance expectations and without changing what is being measured” (IDA, 2020, p. 1). There are four types of accommodations: Presentation, Response, Setting, and Timing/ Scheduling.
Presentation accommodations allow students to have materials or information presented in alternative ways. Offering audio/video recorded lectures and instructions, highlighted text, information presented in smaller chunks and reading guides are examples of these types of accommodations.
Response accommodations provide students with different ways to present or complete activities, assignments, and tests. Examples are dictating to a scribe, recording oral responses on an audio-recorder, and pointing to response choices on tests.
Setting accommodations “change the location in which a test or assignment is given or the conditions of the assessment setting” (IDA, 2020, p. 3). Examples are providing a separate area of the classroom or an entirely different space to prevent distractions.
Timing/Scheduling accommodations “change the length of time allowed for exam completion, a project, or an assignment and may also change the way the time is organized” (IDA, 2020, p. 3). In other words, instead of having students sit for two hours to take an exam, the teacher can provide breaks or shorter sessions spread out across the day or week.
During the student webinar presentations and the follow-up interviews, one important point became apparent—not all accommodations work for every student. Students need to try out accommodations to see what works for them. One student made the point that when he was attending school in person, he tried a separate classroom for taking tests to prevent distractions. He found, though, that if he had a question about the test, the proctor for the test wasn’t always able to answer it.
In addition, just providing the same accommodation to all students such as more time for assignments may not be enough. It is important to have clear accommodations written into IEPs or 504 plans based on the identified needs of the students. While many students with dyslexia need more time, they may need other accommodations as well, as shown in the Accommodations for Students with Dyslexia Fact Sheet. There are several good websites that share ideas about accommodations. Assistive technology is considered an accommodation, and many options are available to students. However, the same principle applies—students need to try these out to see what works for them. Students also expressed that teachers and adults need to provide explicit instruction in how to use assistive technology.
With careful attention to students’ needs and understanding that online learning requires special considerations, educators can provide better support for students with dyslexia. Below are some additional, helpful resources.
Understood.org: IEP Accommodations During Distance Learning
Reading Rockets: Accommodating Students with Dyslexia in All Classroom Settings
International Dyslexia Association: Accommodations for Students with Dyslexia
IDA-Oregon Branch: Dyslexia and Assistive Technology webinar
Special thanks to the International Dyslexia Association Oregon Branch and to the following people who graciously gave their time for an interview:
- Bridget Barnett (senior)
- Imaan Mohandessi (senior)
- Kimia Mohandessi (freshman)
- Meg Huwe (sophomore)
- Macey Johnson (junior)
- Michele Barnett (parent)
Cushen-White, N. (2020). Accommodations for Students with Dyslexia. Baltimore, MD: International Dyslexia Association. Retrieved from https://dyslexiaida.org/accommodations-for-students-with-dyslexia/